Co-Design: A Necessary Skillset for Community-Led Development



‘For the community, by the community’ is the rally cry for community-led development – where those who are most impacted are involved in developing solutions for their own future.

This intention is crystal clear. The question we are asked is—how do you do it?

Co-Design is a methodology for bringing diverse members of your community together to develop creative new ideas, design innovative approaches to persistent problems, and build alignment and momentum for action.

We see co-design at the intersection of innovation and community engagement, and it requires us to push past default practices—of developing solutions in isolation, or consulting with the community on pre-determined solutions—and instead bring the community into a collaborative ideation process.

Understanding how to facilitate a co-design session is an important skillset. It involves:

  • Understanding the co-design approach: 1) Sharing diverse perspectives; 2) Establishing a common aspiration; 3) Building new ideas; and, 4) Deciding on a path forward.
  • Designing the session to suit the needs of the community and include activities and discussions that will help you achieve the session goals
  • Determining who needs to be involved and inviting the community into shared ownership
  • Effective facilitation and ability to navigate session conflicts respectfully

When done well, a co-design process helps to align diverse perspectives, combats polarization, produces creative and customized solutions that are pre-vetted for success by community members, provides community ownership, builds trusting relationships, and increases the community’s capacity to understand, brainstorm, and mobilize.

Tamarack is excited to be hosting Co-Design: A How-To Workshop for Facilitating Community-Led Innovation on March 4-5, 2020 in Toronto. This workshop will give you the tools and practice to host and lead these collaborative co-design sessions effectively. We will go deep on different approaches to engage the community to innovate together, understand what makes these kinds of gatherings distinct, and provide you with tools that you can use to host them.

Want to build your co-design skillset? Join us!

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Community Engagement: Is it Just Lip Service?



Community Engagement Engage NovemberIs Community Engagement just lip service or is it empowerment? Is it simply a box to check or a meaningful enquiry? Do we focus on soliciting input to justify our programs and initiatives or do we genuinely seek guidance from the community about how best to serve them? With limited resources, tight timelines and pressure to get things done, it can be overwhelming to think about opening processes up; especially since that could lead to surprises and results that contradict convention. Yet, every time we engage the community we have the opportunity to learn and shape the work in ways that will be meaningful, practical and implementable.

Learning from successful Community Engagement, here are a few things to keep in mind when building your plan:

  • Who needs to be involved? The people who have the lived experience of the situation. Since they are living the reality everyday they are the experts in knowing what makes their neighbourhoods unique, what the strengths of the neighbourhood are and where they could use a little outside help to make where they are living even better. To ensure that engagement is authentic, it is crucial that those who want to be involved can be involved and that the engagement is representative of the people, values and interests in the neighbourhood.

  • Where should you engage people? Go to where the people already are. Go to their neighbourhood, visit the local parks, attend local events and spend time with local clubs and services. Partnering with agencies who are active in the neighbourhood is a great way to reach people who might otherwise be missed.

  • When is the best time to engage the community? Whenever it is the most convenient for them. Ideally, you will have multiple engagement opportunities on varying days of the week and different times to ensure that everyone has a chance to share their thoughts and insights and pose their questions.

  • What methods of engagement are best? There are a plethora of methods for engaging communities. There is always the traditional survey and focus groups. But why not incorporate an arts-based activity or host a series of neighbourhood coffee conversations? Feel free to be creative!

At the heart of meaningful, authentic Community Engagement are four key elements: connections, trust, relationship and action. Take the time to get to know community members, when you know each other relationships form and trust develops, ultimately leading to deeper engagement. Following through on what you learn and what you say you will do is essential to continuing to build trust and relationship which will impact the overall success of any change spurred by the engagement efforts. Authentic community engagement is the best way to ensure that the best-laid plans do not end up on a shelf rather come to life in the community.

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Empowering Community Innovation



innovation engage november

As the concept of Social Innovation has grown, so have efforts across many countries to foster and support Social Innovation in our communities. This support is much needed, however, the risk with this focus on tools, infrastructure, and theory to support Social Innovation is that we forget a fundamental truth: Human beings are innovative by nature. This should not be understated. We react to adversity by changing ourselves and our environments. Buddhism, Socialism, social safety nets, the 40-hour work week, and recycling are all social innovations. Looking back at our history as a species it would be difficult to make a case that, as a species, we have had a dearth of Social Innovation.

This is not to argue against the need for tools, infrastructure, and theory to support Social Innovation. A critical concern today is that innovation efforts in our society do not often benefit those who need change the most — those who are most marginalized and othered in our society. Shifting this dynamic is a clear opportunity for Social Innovation efforts. But I believe that before becoming enamoured with trendy tools, infrastructure, and theories, we should begin with a few questions:

  • If innovation is inherent to human nature, what enables some people to achieve more success with their change efforts while others flounder? Why do people like Elon Musk and innovations like Facebook dominate our headlines while communities continue to wrestle with the challenges they face?
  • Once we have answered that question —If we understand the enabling conditions for innovation to flourish— what tools, infrastructures, and theories best create those conditions for those we hope to support?

These are not easy questions. It’s far easier to fall in love with novel approaches like Human-Centered Design or Behavioural Economics and assume that by propagating these methods that we will achieve the social changes we hope for. The pitfall is that if these approaches do nothing to shift the enabling conditions for innovation for those we hope to support, all we do is support the status quo and its inherent power dynamics.

When we approach communities and community members with the goal of ‘helping them be innovative’ we assume that they are not already. Instead, if we look at the enabling conditions first, we might find that communities are already fantastically innovative by nature, but systems, structures, and situations hold them back from making the broader changes that they would like. To that end, at Tamarack we’ve been exploring some of the enabling conditions for innovation within communities. If you would like to learn more, check out our recent paper Creating Fertile Soil: Catalyzing Community Innovation.

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The End of Poverty



Jim Hughes - End of Poverty

What an audacious title - The End of Poverty. Everyone in the audience at the Cities Reducing Poverty conference, had given remarks on reducing poverty in Canada, poverty alleviation, the costs of poverty, strategies to address poverty and, of course, what is poverty? But the End of Poverty? As in actually ending it. Jeffrey Sachs wrote about it on an international level but I’ve never done it before. And I probably never would, NOT because I don’t yearn for it – like you – but because I’m somewhat more cautious than Paul Born, optimist extraordinaire, who told me to go for it.

He told me, find the optimist within you; cast aside the cautious former civil servant and nonprofit manager, and reveal the path that ends poverty. My remarks today are the product of a reflection on the best case forward. Not the expected case or the worst case – the best case. We could all talk ourselves into one of these less ambitious roads but why not consider what could be the dream scenario. Before doing so - knock on wood, twist your ring, blink three times or do whatever you do so we don’t jinx this whole thing.

Last year, I was at a presentation by former Astronaut Dave Williams who told the audience that, when faced with what appears to be an impossible challenge, NEVER say, “well, it’s impossible.” Ask, “under what circumstances might it be achievable?” Space flight and a lunar landing were deemed impossible until they weren’t. Someone in the audience asked, “But human travel at the speed of light is impossible.” To which Dr. Williams said, “Are you sure? Under what circumstances might humans be able to travel at that velocity?” The audience was hushed as the thinking had begun. The focus on impossibility was reframed as something possible provided the right circumstances were created. Let’s think about “The End of Poverty” in the same way.

Let me propose to you a 5-point strategy to get this done, two parts “defense” to protect our gains to date, three parts “offense” to propel us forward. These are the conditions under which the impossible becomes possible.


  1. Index all existing benefits. 
  2. Legislate poverty reduction on a bipartisan basis (if possible). 


  1. Boost Market wages. 
  2. Implement BI. 
  3. Work on the Determinants. 

We do these things and we’ll attain the speed of light.

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Social Entrepreneurs are Community Changemakers


social engage novemberEarlier this month, Canada was recognized as the best country in the world when seeding and supporting social entrepreneurship.  In a 2019 survey by the Thomas Reuters Foundation and Deutsche Bank’s Made for Good initiative, Canada rated highly in six categories: 

  • Government support
  • Advancing skilled staff
  • Public Understanding
  • Making a Living
  • Gaining Momentum
  • Access to investment

Canada achieved this rating because of favourable business conditions, supportive government policies, ease of access to investment and the strong involvement of youth and women in social entrepreneurship. 

Social entrepreneurs are individuals or organizations who use commercial strategies to tackle social or environmental problems, using a variety of financial tools to achieve their social good.  Social entrepreneurs are often non-profit organizations who generate revenues through providing services and produces which are re-invested to achieve the social cause.  An internationally known example of a social entrepreneur is the Grameen Bank. 

Social entrepreneurship is thriving in Canada.  On the website recognizing Canada’s achievements is an article by David LePage, Buy Social Canada which details the history and growth of social entrepreneurism in Canada.  David highlights many local and national organizations that have lead the way in building a network of social entrepreneurism. 

Like many other organizations in Canada, Tamarack counts itself in this network of social entrepreneurs.  Since our founding in 2002, Tamarack has reinvested fees generated from workshops, consulting and other services toward our core purposes of building community capacity, the reduction of poverty in Canada and the deepening of community networks and neighbourhoods.  At the same time, Tamarack has benefitted from the strategic investment of critical partners such as the McConnell Foundation, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Maytree, The Suncor Energy Foundation, and the Government of Canada. 

LePage describes the Canadian experience of social entrepreneurship as having to navigate a vast geographical space.  LePage is hopeful about Canada’s experience.  “As we're fitting the puzzle pieces together, the picture portrayed is becoming clearer. It's of a healthy and growing social enterprise ecosystem in Canada.”

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The Latest from the Field

Upcoming Events

Turf, Trust, and Collaboration: Practical Tools for Building Trust - New Dates Added!

January 15 | Toronto, ON
January 16 | Hamilton, ON

Increasingly, communities are using collaboration to tackle some of their most complex issues. How can we do this effectively when we don’t build practices which engage others and build trust?

This interactive workshop focuses on the core leadership competency of trust building. Learners will walk away with ideas, tools and approaches to effectively engage diverse community partners and intentionally build trusting relationships and collaborative impact.  Come prepared to share your experiences and insights in how to build trust.

Learn More About Building Trust


TTC - Ottawa Only, Square


Co-Design: Facilitating Community-Led Innovation

Marck 4-5, 2020 | Toronto, ON

How can you bring diverse members of your community together to develop creative new ideas, innovative approaches to persistent problems, and build alignment and momentum for action?  

Join us for a hands-on facilitation workshop on different approaches to engage the community to innovate together, how to understand what makes these kinds of gatherings distinct, and tools that you can use to host them.

Learn More About Co-Design: Facilitating Community-Led Innovation


2019 Co-Design Square


Upcoming Webinars


Authentic Engagement with People of Lived/Living Experience

Date: November 25, 2019

Speakers: Cheryl Whiskeyjack and Jonathan Massimi

A Journey to Understand Participation and Involvement

Date: November 26, 2019

Speakers: Lidia Kemeny and Paul Born

Building Authentic Collaborative Partnerships

Date: January 14, 2020

Speakers: Mary Pickering and Liz Weaver